On Thursday, March 10, 2016, the student editors of this newspaper ran an opinion piece about Keene State’s “red light rating” in reference to policies related to free speech on this campus. Included with this piece was a large illustrated graphic image of the student center lawn, a barbed wire fence, and people wearing what appear to be prisoner uniforms and caps walking by a fence. Emblazoned above this image was the headline “The truth behind free speech at KSC.” As a Holocaust and genocide major and communication minor, this haunting image evokes in me feelings and thoughts of a concentration camp.
I’m writing to voice concerns over the image’s appropriateness in relation to the subject it is trying to represent. I understand that images such as this are effective for a newspaper to print precisely because they provoke strong emotional responses in viewers and include visual symbols historically associated with the Holocaust and concentration camps.
Roland Barthes, in his 1980 book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, discusses photographs having a “punctum,” meaning that which viscerally pierces or emotionally wounds a viewer. By this definition, the picture has done its job quite well. It provokes people to care and worry about Keene State College policies before they have even read the article.
However, I have to object to the idea of this particular image being associated with KSC policies. I am not arguing that oppressive school policies do not exist, but rather I suggest that the punishment for infringing on those policies is not equal to being sentenced to hard labor in a Holocaust concentration camp.
The punctum of this image produced fear and suffering, and wrongly led readers to believe that KSC punishments and policies are equivalent to imprisonment and genocide, for instance.
My other concern about using this illustrated image of a concentration camp is that the public might become numb to real images of real concentration camps that existed in the past and present. In her canonical book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote of the “banality” of some images.
She posits the idea that should an image be overused across generations, its emotional impact might lessen. To put it in Barthes’ words, the punctum would wear off or be used up; an image will no longer pierce viewers since it would be stripped of its affect. Keene State’s policies may restrict our freedom of speech in some ways, but this experience is not the same nor should it ever be visually equated with pain and suffering during the Holocaust.
In reference to the editorial on the “Red Light” article, I agree with the student staff of The Equinox that our college should become a “green light” school in terms of its policies that might infringe on freedom of speech. However, I think we must remember that, to quote Title IX Harassment Coordinator Jeffrey Maher from the original “Red Light” article, we need to strive for a “culture of inclusion and success for our students so that an individual or group isn’t targeted with hateful speech.”
To achieve this goal, we must not use images that evoke fear and “us versus them” beliefs. It does not have to be, and should not be, “us” versus the administrators of this campus. Using an image that evokes thoughts and feelings of a concentration camp is fundamentally divisive and not appropriate for the subject at hand. In the US, and especially on a liberal arts campus, we have the freedom to voice our calls for change without the specter of a concentration camp looming over us.
I also encourage The Equinox staff to consider what the use of this imagery means on a campus that has the only undergraduate degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. Furthermore. There is already too much fear mongering in our country during this presidential election year that I think Keene State College students should not propagate on our campus. Instead, we should use verbal and visual communication that unifies and sparks social change with positive emotions.
A single image printed in a newspaper is not insignificant. Since some scholars say contemporary American culture is increasingly ocularcentric (or eye-centered) due to advancements in visual media technology, then what is pictured in a newspaper might matter even more than what is read. In the spirit of freedom of speech, I ask the student editors of The Equinox for critical consideration of graphic illustrations and photographs that are published in this newspaper in the future. “The truth behind free speech at KSC” is not a concentration camp on the student center lawn.
Emily Robinson can be contacted at Emily.Robinson2@ksc.keene.edu